Empowerment Scholarship Accounts

Important considerations for parents before making the switch from public school

Administered by the Arizona Department of Education, the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program allows families to use public funds to pay for private school tuition or home-based education, tutoring or therapy services. Qualifying students in specific categories receive 90% of funds that would otherwise go to their public school district. What should parents think about before pursuing or accepting ESA for their children?

NUTS AND BOLTS
ESA recipients agree to withdraw their children from public school and either enroll them in private school or provide education at home in subjects including reading, grammar, math, social studies and science. The program has specific requirements of how the funds can be spent and how to document those purchases.

Once ESA approves a child, parents don’t need to reapply if they keep their child’s account in good standing and continue to participate in the program. Parents must provide their child’s birth certificate and proof of Arizona residency with the initial application. For a child with a disability, the parent should include an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team (MET) report. Applications are accepted year-round. Once approved, funding is added to the child’s account on a quarterly basis.

Historically, students were required to attend an Arizona public school for 100 days before applying for ESA. This requirement changed Sept. 29, 2021, to any 45 school days from the previous school year. Online public school hours can also fulfill the public school attendance requirement. Students in specific categories such as military families or incoming kindergarten and preschool students with disabilities don’t need to meet the attendance prerequisite.

Any remaining ESA funds carry over to the next school year. Students can leave the program and reapply later if their account is in good standing, said Morgan Dick, public information officer with the Arizona Department of Education. Upon leaving the program, funds are held for three years, and are returned to the state general fund if the student doesn’t come back to ESA. This only applies to parents who don’t renew their ESA contract annually.

For example, Kimberly Poeling has used ESA for two of her children. This year, Poeling decided to send her son, age 10, back to public school because he missed the social atmosphere of the classroom. Knowing she has the flexibility to return to ESA later helped her with that decision. Poeling plans to advocate for a solid IEP so her son can receive appropriate support within public school for his needs, including dyslexia. Her daughter, age 7 with multiple disabilities and severe sensory impairment, will stay with ESA. Poeling also serves on the ESA Parent Advisory Council.

Arizona was the first state to offer a program like this, and nine other states now offer something similar, Dick said. Initially developed in 2011 to help provide additional educational options to students with special needs, ESA program eligibility expanded to a total of 10 eligibility categories. These categories are: 

  • Preschool student with a disability
  • K-12 student with a disability
  • Student with a military parent (active duty)
  • Student with a military parent (killed in the line of duty)
  • Student with a parent who is legally blind, deaf or hard of hearing
  • Student attending a D or F rated school
  • Student residing within a Native American Reservation
  • Sibling of a current or previous ESA recipient
  • Student who was a Ward of the Court
  • Student who was a previous ESA recipient

Approximately 10,000 students participate in ESA, with the majority being special needs students enrolled in private schools, Dick noted. As of June 30, 2021, there were 9,669 active students in the ESA program, according to the most recent ESA quarterly report. For students qualifying in the disability categories, total funding per student depends on the child’s primary eligibility category on the IEP.

WHY PARENTS LIKE ESA
Parents using ESA cite benefits including the ability to customize their child’s education, using specific techniques and therapies that work best for their families. Night owls can sleep late and participate in home-based learning in the afternoons. Children who prefer hands-on activities can engage in science projects or similar learning activities, and parents can relate all lessons in different subjects to one topic of interest.

Parents who use ESA funds for private school can afford the sometimes pricey tuition at institutions dedicated to educating special education students. Advantages of these private schools can include smaller class sizes and curriculum specifically designed for students with disabilities.

Parents of immunocompromised children also like the flexibility of ESA. Uncertainty about school status and concerns about COVID-19 caused Desiree Heiser to participate in ESA for her two children, a 7-year-old son with autism and a 9-year-old daughter with ADHD. Her son has asthma and respiratory issues, and a simple cold can send him to the hospital. They started with ESA in fall 2020 due to the risks and concerns related to attending school during COVID, and it’s proven to be a good decision for their family.  “He’s the healthiest he’s ever been,” Heiser said about her son. “During cold and flu season he’d get sick once a month.” Educating her child at home has kept him and her whole family healthier, Heiser noted.

Kathy Visser’s son, now 17, was one of the first participants in the ESA program, and the family has stayed ever since. Visser’s son has orthopedic impairment, autism and visual impairment. Using ESA allowed her to hire a private vision teacher to work with her son during his peak learning hours, from 6-9 a.m., she noted. When he attended public school, his optimum learning time was almost over by the time he arrived at school. Most of their time using ESA has been spent educating at home, and Visser supplements this with participation in community groups. She previously paid for her son to attend private school in northeast Phoenix, but felt he needed more one-on-one support for academics and executive functioning skills. Her plan is to continue using ESA until he’s 22, then they’ll consider college options.

Jenny Clark has five children with ESA, three with their own IEPs and two as siblings. The family also uses ESA to home educate, which in their case includes dyslexia tutoring, handwriting instruction and horse therapy.

“We can create a robust set of resources for our kids that we would not have been able to do without ESA,” Clark said. They were also able to use one of their child’s ESA funds to pay for an extensive neuropsychological evaluation, which could result in a change to her child’s eligibility category and connected ESA funding.

ESA CHALLENGES FACED BY PARENTS
For some families, disadvantages to ESA might include the required documentation and record-keeping. Much of that is now done online and has been streamlined over the years to make it easier for parents.

Families in private schools have also seen their institutions move locations or close without warning, leaving parents to drive further or search for other options. Many private schools don’t provide bus service, and ESA funds can’t be used to pay for transportation.

Parents who accept ESA also waive their child’s right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), releasing the school district from all obligations to educate the student. When ESA requires it, parents can return to their public school district to request a re-evaluation. School districts usually update MET reports every three years.

If the child attends a private school located outside of the district where the parent lives, they might need to contact a different school district to get a new MET. In that case, parents should contact their district’s special education department to learn more about this process.

Stacey Plant’s twin boys, now 18, are both on the autism spectrum and spent most of their educational time in public schools. When they started high school, she questioned the level of academic and social support for one of her twins. Her family applied for ESA and used it for him to attend private school in the Northeast Valley while his brother stayed at public school.

Her son completed his freshman year at private school, and it seemed like a positive option. However, that summer the family received an email from the private school that their son would no longer be an ideal fit for their program. They scrambled to find another plan, ultimately sending him back to public school with his twin brother to start their sophomore year.

Returning to public school worked out for Plant’s son, now a senior. This year her twins both have internships and participate in Vocational Rehabilitation through their school.

Another concern for families is that special needs private schools could isolate students from their typical peers. Plant’s son’s previous private school had a committee to greet students each morning as they arrived, but she said her impression was that most students spent time on their own. At public school, her son is around typical students during electives and lunchtime.

Kelly Randall and her family decided to use ESA when her son Nathan was going into high school. Her son has autism and they decided on an autism-specific school in the East Valley, thinking it would better fit his needs. His teacher had two children of her own with autism, so Randall felt an instant connection. But Nathan missed more traditional aspects of public school including the morning announcements. Around winter break, he started telling his parents that he missed his friends at public school, and he wanted to go back. 

Parents might also be concerned that with ESA, their children could miss out on after-school activities or vocational-technical programs. Parents can contact their neighborhood public school to find out about extracurricular activities. Clark noted they can also contact the appropriate vocational-technical program and to arrange payment for participation.

Like most decisions related to caring for a child with special needs, much consideration goes into participating in the ESA program. Families can gather more information on the ESA website at https://www.azed.gov/esa

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